Finding ways to make “work supports” work better

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The federal and state governments have a number of ways to help working families at or near poverty stay afloat economically and get a leg up towards self-sufficiency. Yet, for a variety of reasons, families don’t always get the help for which they qualify.

Work supports include child care assistance, Medicaid, energy assistance and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). These supports can make the difference between breaking the cycle of poverty, or falling deeper into debt and despair.

Governments put conditions on work supports, such as asset or income tests, co-payments and premiums. Policymakers use such restrictions to limit costs and assure program integrity. But these restrictions also can add unnecessary red tape and administrative costs, and can prevent services from achieving their intended outcomes.

The Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota (CDF-MN) reviewed work support programs in multiple states, identified participation barriers, and highlighted how different states have made improvements in their report Public Work Support Programs: Addressing Barriers to Increase Access.

Asset limits can prevent families from accumulating savings or planning for unforeseen circumstances, CDF-MN said. Low-income families need to be able to build a nest egg to protect themselves from unexpected bills. Further, the assets tests can keep moderate-income families from getting help until they spend all of their savings. “During the current recession, asset limits are especially burdensome due to the high unemployment rate among the middle class,”  the report said.

The report includes some recent Minnesota success stories.

  • Minnesota had a $7,000 asset limit for residents to receive food assistance. But this legislative session, that asset limit was lifted. The Star Tribune reported that 70,000 Minnesotans would qualify for food support as a result of this and other changes.
  • Minnesota also has received a federal waiver, allowing people to qualify for food support by a phone interview instead of requiring a face-to-face interview. The Minnesota Department of Human Services reports that, “This waiver has reduced waiting room congestion, created more focused interviews, created flexibility in interview times and benefited clients by not having to make additional trips to the local office.”

Meanwhile, Child Care Assistance – a critical support for working parents – has seen continual erosion in funding, which has led to a growing number of qualifying families going unserved. Minnesota is among 19 states that have waiting lists or have simply stopped taking new applications.

In December of 2009, 6,623 eligible families were awaiting Child Care Assistance in Minnesota. Waiting lists in Minnesota vary across counties. Historically, only metro area counties had extensive waiting lists. This trend, however, is slowly changing as 28 percent of the child care waiting list now comes from greater Minnesota counties.

Despite the benefits of work support programs, many eligible families do not participate. Nationally, 80 percent of eligible children are not enrolled in child care assistance and 21 percent of eligible children who could receive health care coverage through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program are not enrolled, CDF-MN finds. Using work supports to help families move out of poverty is a boost for their children. Research shows that “children living in economically stable families have a better chance at life.”